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Why Divergent Thinking Is Essential to Move Today’s Organizations — and Societies — Forward

Mike Shipman October 22, 2019

I recently had the pleasure of talking with a colleague who did his final degree on various topics surrounding business leadership. When I discussed Otto Scharmer’s “Theory U” with him, he was not familiar with the author, but he did offer interesting insight that relates to the topic of creative leadership. My colleague provided the position that a lot of researchers in the field of leadership today are often repackaging old ideas in new, more interesting formats to make a name for themselves in the business (M. Ciaravella, personal communication, 2018). While this may be considered a more cynical view of the field, I have a way of putting this view to positive use. In the discussion that follows, I plan to connect and consolidate various researchers’ works to demonstrate that as creative leaders, we need to find our own path forward. We need to build upon the work that inspires us, rather than getting bogged down in its details.

Systems Thinking, Visioning, and Mental Models

Systems Thinking

According to Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky’s “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World,” systems thinking begins with understanding one’s own internal system of loyalties, emotional range of responses, and arsenal of methods (or lack thereof) for leveraging change through leadership before actually doing so. This seminal work is important because it encourages us to understand ourselves and our “blind spots” (Scharmer) as part of opening our minds to the ideas and perspectives of others to collaborate toward integrative solutions. Such material connects well to the thinking of Kelley and Littman. Their book “The Ten Faces of Innovation: IDEO’s Strategies for Beating the Devil’s Advocate & Driving Creativity Throughout Your Organization” focuses on understanding one’s internal system in the form of various innovation personas to most effectively leverage change.

Once this understanding has been achieved, diagnosing the issues to be solved within a system can be done via diagramming and modeling the multiple forces and relationships at work using reinforcing and/or balancing loops to identify a common pattern of behavior known as a system archetype (in reference to William Braun’s The System Archetypes). Anthony, Anthony, Gould, and Smith applied this to the education system of the United States. They concluded that the best resources for learning go to the successful at the expense of the underperforming, also known as the archetype “success-to-the-successful.” Scharmer provided an alternative visual for applying systems thinking in a step-by-step process he calls “The U.” Still another way of mapping a system and solving complex problems comes from Tim Brown’s Change By Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation and IDEO. With his firm IDEO, Brown put forth three spaces for innovation: inspiration (generating ideas), ideation (prototyping / trying the ideas out), and implementation (moving forward with the best option). In short, when creatively solving complex problems, there are multiple paths to a variety of effective solutions.


In “The Necessary Revolution: Working Together to Create a Sustainable World,” Senge, Smith, Kruschwitz, Laur, and Schley believe that having an ambitious and positive vision calling for direct accomplishments can build the capacities of stakeholders. Such vision is often established through the formation of goals and later a specific plan of action. Visions and subsequent action plans articulated by stepping away from and viewing the situation objectively “on the balcony” can be reassessed periodically throughout the process (Heifetz et al., 2009). The changes needed to realign the action plan (and vision, if necessary) to accomplish the fundamental solution can then be directly applied “on the dance floor,” or the lower levels of specific tasks within the plan (Heifetz et al., 2009). Applying this to the people aspect of organizations, Ken Blanchard, in his interview with the organization “LeadersIn,” suggested enabling employees to act on management’s vision with the leadership model known as “servant leadership.” It forces management to serve the employees they oversee by empowering them with the responsibility needed to accomplish the organization’s mission (Blanchard).

Scharmer also proposes visioning as part of creative leadership, as his ‘U’ illustrates that once we let go of past fears and judgments, we can presence (connect to the source of emerging ideas), let new ideas come, and crystallize our vision and intention to enact prototypes toward an eventual solution. In “Creative Leadership: Skills That Drive Change (2nd ed.),” Puccio, Mance, and Murdock propose a similar starting point in their creative problem solving (CPS) process, as “Exploring the Vision” is expected to occur before we can even establish the challenges of the problem to be addressed. Lastly, in his book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” Pink summarizes (in a way) the concept of “servant leadership” around autonomy as one of the three essential tools for unleashing intrinsic motivation in the workplace. His work channels the creative workplace solutions of firms like IDEO and Google, where autonomy is encouraged through policies such as “20 percent time” and the “Results Only Work Environment” or ROWE. Allowing employees to work on topics they are passionate about (20 percent time) or in ways that they enjoy (ROWE) takes the pressure of continued visioning off of upper management and permits workers to shape their company’s evolving vision through the exploration of new ideas.

Mental Models

Mental models are individuals’ core assumptions underlying the systems thinking approach discussed previously. Senge et al.’s seminal work provides a way to depict this relationship graphically with the “iceberg model.” It, and mental models in general, allow for a more detailed and tailored implementation of the fundamental solution identified via systems thinking after a more thorough analysis of the issues. This is yet another graphical way to break down a complex issue into its components, starting with what actually happened at the tip of the iceberg (events) and working our way down through possible patterns and underlying systemic structures to get at the core of individuals’ beliefs (mental models; Senge et al.). The iceberg model is important, for not only does it provide us a framework for analyzing complex issues, but its components can be seen within and connected to other works, such as Scharmer’s ‘U’ and Puccio et al.’s CPS process.

Emotional Intelligence and Presencing

Emotional Intelligence

In an interview, Daniel Goleman stated that “emotional intelligence is not one thing. It’s a spectrum of abilities from self-awareness, to managing yourself, to empathy, to relationship management, and within each of those domains there’s several abilities.” He reminded us that a good leader does not have to have all of these skills, but regardless, it is apparent that emotional intelligence has a strong correlation with leadership. The skills Goleman listed are ones Scharmer would expect of an individual leader who is channeling an open mind, open heart, and open will to let go, presence, and let come. Kelley and Littman take this thinking one step further, as they challenge us to identify the mindsets that drive us as leaders so we can maximize our emotional intelligence and avoid overextending ourselves.


Earlier I referred to understanding our own individual system of beliefs before opening up to new perspectives and engaging in larger order systems thinking. Scharmer, who I have referenced on multiple occasions already, has conducted what I consider to be seminal work in this area with his coined term “presencing.” As noted above, this refers to connecting with one’s authentic self (their source), but more importantly, it is about opening our minds, hearts, and wills by suspending our judgments and letting go of our preconceived notions. The importance of this work can be seen by connecting it to a more practical situation. Ackoff and Greenberg (2008), influential in their own right, proposed in “Turning Learning Right Side Up: Putting Education Back On Track” that students will learn best by creating the objects of their learning instead of breaking them down. This can be extrapolated to understanding larger systems. Ackoff and Greenberg proposed this is done via synthesizing the larger system for understanding its structure (why it works the way it does) instead of analyzing it for knowledge (how it works). It is through using a process such as Scharmer’s ‘U’ that we can break free of the old industrial model of learning (regurgitating the three ‘R’s) and progress forward to creating learning inspired by intrinsic motivation.

Individual Personas, Creative Problem Solving, and the Design Thinking Process

Individual Personas

As referenced earlier, Kelley and Littman concentrated the idea of understanding our own internal systems prior to effectively leveraging change. They did this through the establishment of ten different innovation personas.  To me as an aspiring researcher, identifying the personas that drive me is important because it helps me consider the most effective research approaches for my own topic of interest after reviewing related seminal works in that field. For example, through my own self-analysis, I have identified myself primarily as a storyteller and secondarily as a collaborator (Kelley and Littman). This has led me to conclude that while storytelling avails me to qualitative research, I am a pragmatist at heart (because of my collaborative nature) and acknowledge that quantitative work will also be needed to address my research problem.  Thus, I believe a mixed methods approach will be needed for addressing the research problem that I will briefly articulate below.

Creative Problem Solving

Also alluded to earlier was the Creative Problem Solving (CPS) process put forth by Puccio et al. The importance of this process is not just the steps (vision à challenges à ideas à solutions, etc.) articulated, but the thinking employed within the steps.  In their book, Puccio et al. discuss the importance of divergent (“a broad search for many diverse and novel alternatives”) and convergent (“a focused and affirmative evaluation of alternatives”) thinking within each step of the journey toward solving a complex problem. Although this work is more recent in my leadership development, its influence cannot be ignored, as such thinking is encouraged in the “open” approaches of authors previously discussed, as well as the design thinking process forthcoming. These lines of thinking move us away from our closed, previously held assumptions instilled in us by a sometimes stagnant society. Instead of choosing from already known alternatives (e.g. rushing to judgment via solely convergent thinking), patiently starting with divergent thinking (such as brainstorming) allows the best possible ideas to emerge and for us to converge upon them in a collaborative manner.

Design Thinking Process

As a certified public accountant (CPA) who got his start in the business field (now I am a teacher), I find Brown’s design thinking process to be extremely practical. I could potentially argue that this author provides the “business summation” of the ideas and beliefs discussed above. Brown’s illustration of inspiration, ideation, and implementation aligns well from a simplified design standpoint with the steps of exploring the vision, exploring ideas, and formulating a plan within CPS (Puccio et al.). What’s more, Brown discusses the importance of divergent thinking in addition to convergent thinking as part of his process, lending additional weight to Puccio et al.’s use of these thinking styles in their own CPS process. If that weren’t enough, further credence is given to these processes by Kembel who, in giving a 2009 lecture in Chautauqua, New York, highlighted the importance of the steps of empathy, definition (of the problem), ideation, prototyping, and testing in disseminating his own version of a design thinking process.

The utilization of various processes for solving complex problems is all fine and good, but we cannot forget individual motivation, as was discussed at the beginning of this synthesis. In his book on motivation, Pink informed us of the gap between what business does and what science knows with the fact that extrinsic motivation does not work for completing engaging tasks. Rather, it is intrinsic motivation, driven by providing employees with opportunities for autonomy, mastery, and purpose that unveil new and productive project results. The individual aspect detailed here and at the beginning of this synthesis can be combined with some of the processes we have discussed and then applied to some of the influential research surrounding my research topic to reveal my own creativity leadership paradigm.

Connecting This to My Work in Undergraduate Accounting Education

Regardless of educational subject, employers and new employees alike often complain of insufficient preparation of students for the workforce. This is no different in accounting, where both groups cite a gap between the undergraduate education provided and the knowledge and skills required for satisfactory performance.  Educational institutions have tried to make changes, such as trying to prepare students for certification exams, but have time and again failed to keep pace with the rapidly changing business environment. So how can the literature discussed above apply to solving this problem?

First, for those not familiar with the accounting field, we must provide some examples of seminal works to set the stage for the application of creative leadership. For example, it was through a groundbreaking mixed methods study that Albrecht and Sack concluded that having separate undergraduate accounting programs as they are currently structured is not advisable and that prospects for accounting education appear dismal. “Students spend too much time listening to lectures and not enough time engaged in activities that develop business skills and knowledge,” the study says. More specifically, in another mixed methods study, Burke and Gandolfi showed that accounting education was not delivering certain topical coverage (mainly around small business accounting) that students would need to succeed in the field.

To address these problems, business researchers have offered a variety of perspectives. For example, Coe and Delaney concluded after a large survey of accounting faculty department chairs that an increased emphasis on the certified management accounting (CMA) designation (as opposed to the certified public accounting, or CPA, designation that is currently the “gold standard”) could be one way to improve the current standard US accounting curriculum. Beginning the connection back to creative leadership, Coe and Delaney’s proposal could be seen as a way to provide more autonomy and purpose within the curriculum. The CMA designation provides another possible path or purpose for aspiring accounting students, and it also provides another area within the field that students can attempt to master.

Although not specifically a business researcher, Kolb’s “Experience As the Source of Learning And Development (2nd ed.)” is built on the foundation of experiential learning theory put forth by scholars such as Dewey, Lewin, Piaget, and others. In studying the research of his predecessors and expanding upon it in his own right, Kolb continued to maintain that learning by doing is the most effective way of increasing one’s knowledge. It is my desire to research this theory in connection with improving our current undergraduate US accounting education system, as I believe more experiential learning in accounting curricula can attract more students to the profession. I believe it can also build upon a base of conceptual knowledge established within the curriculum that could lead to decreasing the gap between what students learn and what employers expect them to know upon entering the workforce.


Above, I began to answer my question regarding how creative leadership literature could be of use in addressing accounting education issues. I applied Pink’s tools of autonomy and mastery to the proposed solution provided by Coe and Delaney. The experiential learning research of Kolb can also be paired with creative literature research. Kolb’s work connects with Ackoff and Greenberg  in that learning by doing is a form of synthesizing, or creating, the objects of one’s learning. If we want to connect this individual perspective to one of the many group processes above, we need only look to prototyping. In the design thinking process of ideation provided by Brown, prototyping is offered as an effective way of visually depicting divergent thinking before converging on a particular solution. For solving the problem of misguided accounting education, that solution is improved learning.

In conclusion, I would like to end this synthesis of literature by presenting my own creativity leadership paradigm. As a pragmatist, my focus is more on solving problems than understanding them. Thus, for regular, everyday problems, I propose providing students and employees with the autonomy they need to resolve such issues on their own. This should result in higher intrinsic motivation and lead to better results, whether such results be in the classroom or the workplace. Sticking with the individual perspective, I do think students and employees should practice introspection regularly, whether it be through an iceberg model, “the U” process, or innovation persona analysis, to determine where their development stands and to where they would like it to proceed.

From a group and organizational standpoint, I believe divergent thinking processes must be employed to move today’s organizations, and societies, forward. No longer can we address complex problems with technical fixes, as Heifetz et al. remind us with their prescription of adaptive leadership. To be efficient, we solve the easy problems by empowering those closest to such issues, and in so doing, we obtain the added byproduct of their creativity often addressing more complex problems that organizations and/or society have that we may not even yet be aware of. For what complex problems remain, a variety of analytical tools are at our disposal, whether it be systems thinking, CPS, or design thinking. The key is allowing divergent thinking to generate the best emerging solution instead of simply converging on what’s conveniently available (which is likely just a technical fix) or what has worked for us in the past. In his TED Talk “Designers — Think Big!“, Tim Brown says that “by using prototypes to move ideas along quickly, by getting the process out of the hands of designers, and by getting the active participation of the community, we can tackle bigger and more interesting questions .”

Social Entrepreneurship / Stakeholder Capitalism
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